Introduction to Hebrews

Jesus is beyond compare

He has made a way for you; follow him—no matter what the cost

How to read Hebrews

We all face rough times. When the pressure is on, we may be tempted to give up. We need a reminder of what we’re contending for to get us through those tough spots. Hebrews was written for just such a situation. It was for Jewish followers of Jesus who were facing really severe persecution because of their faith. In light of the hardship, some had considered abandoning the faith altogether. The author exhorts them to keep going regardless of the price. Why?

The reason is simple. Nothing—and no one—compares to Jesus!

He is better than the angels, better than Moses, better than Joshua, better than Aaron, better than Melchizedek. Indeed, he instituted a better covenant based on better promises resulting in a better rest because he’s made a better sacrifice—giving his very own life. In fact, if you were to consider all the great heroes of the faith, Jesus is better yet! That is why we must “consider ... Jesus” (Heb 3:1) and keep “looking to Jesus” him and him alone (Heb 12:2). He is better than better—he is the best there is! The stirring conclusion is clear: Because Jesus is beyond compare, it is worth following him no matter what it costs!

The writer makes frequent contrasts between Old Testament ritual law and New Testament faith. Notice the strong appeals made to persuade the Jewish believers to stick with the new covenant rather than going back to the old. Look for the vivid Old Testament images used to illustrate what God has done through Jesus Christ. Read the stories of those who endured through the Old Testament, clinging to faith and grace in anticipation of the Christ, “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16). Delight in the fabulous descriptions of the incomparable life and nature of our great Messiah. And determine in your heart to treasure Jesus above all else—that’s when you know you’ve really got the message of Hebrews!

Who wrote this book?

This is a debated question. The answer is unclear because the author does not identify him or herself. Though some have suggested it was written by Paul, it is more likely written by one of his trusted Jewish associates: Barnabas, Apollos, or Priscilla. The fact that the document remained anonymous may point strongly to the female authorship of Priscilla.

When was it written?

The nature of the persecution described in the letter indicates a time in which there was no social stigma for being a Jew, but there was for being a follower of Jesus. The author says, “partly, being exposed to both reproaches and oppressions; and partly, becoming partakers with those who were treated so. For you both had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and an enduring one in the heavens” (Heb 10:33-34). This could indicate the time of persecution under Emperor Nero, perhaps after Peter and Paul’s martyrdom, sometime in the late AD 60s. Note that Timothy—Paul’s close companion—had just been “freed” (Heb 13:23).

To whom was it written and why?

Are there times when you would prefer not to identify yourself with Christ because of social pressures and cultural perceptions? Then you may be able to understand somewhat the dilemma facing these early Jewish believers. Because of the particular nature of the persecution they were experiencing, it was safe to be known as a Jew, but it was potentially life-threatening to be identified as a Christian. Therefore, Hebrews sounded a warning to these early Jewish believers who were being tempted to revert to their Old Testament rituals in an attempt to escape persecution and save their families, their businesses, their lives. Hebrews exhorts them that the “new and life-giving way” of faith in Jesus is better! (Heb 10:20).

SourceView Insights

Though sometimes it is referred to as an epistle, Hebrews is actually not a letter. It does not contain the expected elements of a first-century letter. It does not state who wrote it nor to whom it was written. It contains no initial greeting or prayer of blessing. Instead, it refers to itself as a “word of exhortation” (Heb 13:22) for it takes only 45 minutes to read. Apparently then, what we have before us is the transcript of an inspired sermon. But this is not just a religious message. It is more like a political rally!

This exhortation patterns itself after a form of political speech common in the Roman era known as a synkrisis. In this genre of speech, the advocate of a candidate would deliver a message comparing the candidate with famous persons in the city’s past. In every instance the candidate would be declared to be better than the predecessor. If the political speech was effective, the hearers would break into enthusiastic partisan cheers, chanting loudly the name of the candidate for whom they would vote! In the same way the author of Hebrews lifted up Jesus and expected the hearers to end “proclaiming our allegiance to his name” (Heb 13:15), aligning themselves unswervingly with Jesus—even when facing persecution!

At the same time, the author conveys a deep caring, pastoral concern for her or his fellow-believers who are going through these rough times. The author identifies with the hearers and places the words of Psalm 118:6 into their own mouths, saying, “So that with good courage we say, ‘The Lord is my helper. I will not fear. What can man do to me?’” (Heb 13:6).

Time and again the author empathizes with the persecuted believers, using first person plural language (“we, our, ours, us”) to identify with these original hearers of this synkrisis. Consider what is written in 1:1, 2, 3; 2:1,3, 5, 8, 9, 16, 17, 18; 3:1, 6, 14, 19; 4:1, 2, 3, 4, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16; 5:11; 6:1, 3, 9, 11, 18, 19, 20; 7:8, 9, 13, 14, 26; 8:1, 3, 6; 9:5, 12, 14, 24, 28; 10:10, 12, 19, 21-26, 29, 30, 39; 11:1, 3, 4, 40; 12:1, 2, 9, 10, 25, 28, 29; 13:10, 13, 14, 15, 18, 20, 23. The pastoral empathy exhibited in these passages should be an inspiration for us to live our lives in a similar way: identifying closely with those who are undergoing persecution for their faith in the amazing person of Jesus Christ.

World English Bible (WEB)
a Public Domain Modern English translation
of the Holy Bible.

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